Commentary Magazine

Portrait of a Hero

The general-information section of the Israel telephone directory contains a significant guide to the collective consciousness of the country. Because the demand for new phones has always exceeded the supply, each directory includes a priority list explaining the official policy of distribution. Elected officials head the list, and are followed by the army, hospitals, fire stations, the Red Magen David, and police. The next stratum consists of government offices, embassies and consulates, and major services. Then the list turns from institutional to private allocations, where the notion of “priority” shifts sharply. The private section is headed by doctors, followed by:

Parents of soldiers killed in ac-
Parents of missing soldiers or pris-
       oners of war
Widows of soldiers killed in ac-
Wives of missing soldiers and
    prisoners of war
Parents and widows of persons
    killed by enemy action

Next come the heavily disabled (at least 80 percent disability), under several sub-headings:

Disabled ex-servicemen
Disabled as a result of resistance
    against the Nazis
Disabled as a result of enemy ac-

All these take precedence over public institutions such as banks, businesses, hotels, schools, and transportation facilities.

No doubt many Israelis, if reminded of this list, would draw ironic attention to the missing factor of protektsia (patronage in French, cronyism in English) which has a way of reordering all priorities in that country. Or they would wonder aloud at the fact that the national telephone system, so many years after statehood, still cannot satisfy all its potential customers. The gap between the ideal and the reality does not close, in Israel, much faster than elsewhere. Nonetheless, the carefully discriminating, frequently revised priorities list defines the citizenry it serves. The national indebtedness to the families of soldiers, greater even than to the injured, expresses the common recognition that but for the willingness of its children and husbands to sacrifice their lives in its defense, Israel would not exist.

While honoring the dead, such a formulation of value also affirms a certain expectation of the living. The intrusion of national memory and obligation into an apparently neutral and commonplace item like the telephone book is characteristic of Israel, where it has never been possible to insulate “normal daily life” from the efforts that must be made to protect it. This natural—or inescapable—awareness helps to explain the personality of Jonathan Netanyahu, the young Israeli who became a posthumous hero when he was killed while commanding the brilliant raid on Entebbe airport of July 4, 1976, which freed 103 Jewish hostages held by terrorists. His letters, first collected by his surviving younger brothers and published in Israel, now translated into English with their explanatory notes, trace Netanyahu’s fully conscious progress toward that end.1

The letters of “Yoni”—as he was known to all—cover thirteen years, from the spring of 1963 when his family moved to America, to June 29, 1976, shortly before his death. The earliest letters are of a boy of seventeen, writing to his former classmates in Jerusalem from unfamiliar surroundings in Philadelphia. In the process of uprooting, which sharpened his attachment to Israel and his self-awareness, he began using letters to reexamine his relation to people and places. This talent for correspondence later flourished when Netanyahu returned to serve in the army, as native Israelis are required to do at eighteen. Separated thereafter from his parents, and from his younger brothers until they returned home at the start of their army service, he provided generous, frank accounts of himself and his blisteringly rapid progress.



The collected letters span an eventful life: Netanyahu’s exploits as a paratrooper and an officer; his discharge, remobilization, and service in the Six-Day War of 1967; his marriage, which ended in painful divorce; several intervals of civilian life including a year’s study at Harvard and some impressionable travels; the earnestly considered return to military service and the unique record of leadership that concluded with his command, at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, of the elite unit that launched the raid on Entebbe. Free of literary self-consciousness, the unfolding story retroactively, spontaneously, assumes the contour of a first-person novel with a recognizable hero.

The character of the writer compels attention. Rarely is the habit of thoughtful introspection combined, as it is here, with such purposeful striving in the world of work and accomplishment, especially of the military variety. With a cool awareness of his own ability, Netanyahu took up what he perceived to be the greatest challenges, enjoying the process of achievement far more than the accruing of rewards. (“Incidentally, a little over two weeks ago I was made a major.”) He objected to the notion that it was the army which supplied a sense of purpose, and gently scolded his younger brother for idolizing the paratroopers and belittling his own studies. Purpose came from within. “As you know,” he wrote to his family about several weeks that followed his army discharge, during which he had worked his way up from porter to gardener to independent contractor, “when I decide to do something, I devote myself completely to the matter at hand and cannot do anything else, since I have to do things perfectly. It’s not a matter of principle or calculated decision, it’s simply the way I am.”

This penchant for self-dedication he traced to his father, Benzion Netanyahu, prominent Jewish historian, who served as editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia Judaica from 1948 to 1965. Though he does not explicitly make the connection, the son’s choice of military service led him into the forefront of an unfolding Jewish history with the same zeal that his father applied to its reconstruction. It was aimlessness he found hard to understand, as represented by the pointless meanderings of characters he saw in a Pinter play, or in his encounters with young Americans in Boston, “caught up in endless frustration and . . . unable to progress beyond the infantile stage.” He speaks of them like a sorrowing parent, mourning the waste of so much promise.



The feeling of responsible involvement that riveted Netanyahu’s attention to the fate of his people transforms this personal correspondence into a document of historical import. As it happens, Netanyahu was born shortly before the creation of the state of Israel, and the account of his maturation often seems to embody a broader collective process of testing and consolidation. Significant stretches of his young manhood in the mid-1960’s were spent on hiking expeditions that reinforced a knowledge and love of the land. Even the tension of the spring of 1967, following Nasser’s blockade of the Straits of Tiran and the military encirclement of Israel, did not dull the national morale which he describes as high, “you might even say sky high.” Surrounded by his fellow reservists, family men who hoped war would be averted, he remained certain that if it did come, “we can’t lose. Our men are just too good.” His judgment here as elsewhere did not refer to technological mastery but to human mettle, the moral resiliency of those in his command.

The period immediately following the Six-Day War—in which Netanyahu was wounded—provided a brief respite from the steady vigilance of the preceding years, since everyone was sure that the decisive victory would guarantee at least a decade’s, if not permanent, peace. During this interval Yoni married and went off to study at Harvard. Instead of the anticipated improvement, however, there came the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal, multiplying acts of terrorism, and the broadening diplomatic war against Israel that strained the country’s patience and resources. One can feel the twin pressure of family and personal ambition when Netanyahu rejoined the army. He writes to his wife:

Anyone who has something to contribute at present ought to do it. I believe that the Jewish people’s survival depends largely on Israel—and more than that: that Israel’s survival depends on us—on our capabilities and staying power. It’s enough to read just once all the war slogans of our tens of millions of neighbors, to note their hatred and desire to annihilate us (including you, my wife) to get an extra boost and encouragement for my staying on in the army.

The prose appears to stiffen with the resolve.

But it proved impossible to maintain a consistent family life between anti-terrorist raids. While Israel’s tiny size encouraged close physical ties to civilian duties, the nature of Netanyahu’s work in a reconnaisance unit exposed him to dangers he could not share and seemed to weigh him down with sadness. The most disturbing letters tell of his divorce, which he accepted numbly.

With age and rank, he faced a much broader range of problems. One could take pleasure, as he did, in whipping a battalion into perfect shape, but even a flawless army could not offset the diplomatic victories he saw the Arabs winning with oil. The corollary of his passionate concern for Israel was an intense disgust with internal political intrigue and occasional signs of demoralization. “What’s needed is wisdom to fight the isolation that’s closing in on us, but there are no wise men in Israel.”

For many reasons the letters of the last years, particularly after the Yom Kippur War, leave much unsaid. Netanyahu did not like to write about war; his exploits in the anti-terrorist unit, the stuff of so many contemporary thrillers, are only alluded to in the book’s accompanying notes. He wrote on the road, with frequent interruptions, regretting the need for haste. In some ways, the struggle he does describe, trying to make sense of the critical position he had elected as his own, reveals the same steady courage he showed on the battlefield, for which he was decorated.

In that inner struggle, he managed to maintain his belief in the significance of individual action. The demands he made on himself were never extended to others, but philosophically, his unwavering emphasis on meaningful choice—in his case, the decision to protect his community from harm—was intended to inspire those around him with confidence in their future. The importance of this posture extends beyond the confines of the particular situation in Israel, because Netanyahu did not understand his own life as being separate from the world; rather, he was a man in a community whose persistence and fidelity might strengthen humanity with a much-needed example.



Confined though this book is to the experience of a single young man, it actually carries the imprint of his entire family, not only because his brothers collected the letters and gave the book its shape, but because they and their parents are so prominent in the writer’s thoughts. Paradoxically, the absence of his family members from Israel while Netanyahu was in the army intensified their importance to him. He says so, in letters frankly lonesome, despite the warmth shown him by a local substitute family and his many relatives. His whole notion of the Jewish people emerges in the image of the family, with Israel protecting those in the dispersion, and himself at the center of it all.

Within this unit of kinship, Netanyahu seemed to take for himself the role of father. For his own father he expressed unambiguous admiration and love, as when he writes, after receiving his father’s new book, The Marranos of Spain, “I never told you how proud I am of your being the man you are, of my being your son.” The many letters to his parents, who evidently wanted him to continue his studies, offer thorough explanations, but no apologies, for deciding not to do so.

At the same time, the younger Netanyahu assumed for himself a different branch and style of responsibility. He repeatedly interrupted his studies to return to the army, all the while encouraging his father to stay abroad so that he might pursue his historical research under the best possible circumstances. He writes to his brothers like a tender parent, without condescension, but as if they were in his care. He is never happier—or more effective—than when he is the commander of his unit. The woman he loves he addresses as “my child,” and writes to as gently.

One of the anomalies of Israeli life, often noted by its observers, is the constant need for the children to be defending their parents. Since the country’s military strength has not yet guaranteed its acceptance in the region, the danger threatens every household, hastening the independence of the young but also, because they are virtually indispensable, encumbering them with duty and a sense of foreboding. Netanyahu was characteristic of his generation: he simply took on more.



In its shape and vividness, this book invites comparison with crafted autobiographies and works of fiction rather more than with the testimonial volumes in memory of fallen soldiers that are so numerous in Israel as to have become a modern genre. It particularly calls to mind the novella, “Early in the Summer of 1970,” by the Israeli writer, A.B. Yehoshua,2 which concerns the death-inaction of a young man, just about Netanyahu’s age, as it is experienced by his father, a teacher of Bible. Yehoshua’s fable draws attention to its own literary properties, almost as though it fears being mistaken for a realistic work. Over and over again in it the father relives the moment when he learned that his son had been killed—until, through his torment, we begin to recognize that he may have required his son’s death, that for this teacher of Bible, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac has become a social imperative.

When the father goes to identify the body, it turns out not to be his son. But whether, like Isaac, the boy has been spared, or whether he has been sacrificed on another altar, the story does not say. It lingers on the single, complex moment of the father’s despair:

And there are those who do not come back. Several already. A few disappear. And something withers in me. I remain troubled. This pain of theirs, the advantage of an experience in which I have no share. And even those who do come back, though they walk with their children and their shopping baskets, there is something veiled in their eyes, they stare at me blankly, almost ignore me, as though I had deceived them somewhere. I mean, as though I had deceived them with the very subject matter itself. As if everything we taught them—the laws, the proverbs, the prophecies—had all collapsed for them out there, in the dust, the scorching fires, the lonely nights. All of it had failed the test of some other reality. . . .

Netanyahu, the son of a different father, did not feel himself deceived. To the contrary, all he had learned from Jewish history he reinterpreted for himself, and then reinforced the lesson by his actions.

Tomorrow is Passover. . . . When I go back over our history, I pass through long years of suffering, of oppression, of massacres, of ghettos, of banishments, of humiliation; many years that . . . seem devoid of light—yet it isn’t so. For the fact that the idea of freedom remained, that the flame of liberty continued to burn through the observance of this ancient festival, is to me testimony of the eternity of the striving for freedom and the idea of freedom in Israel. . . .

I clearly remember one Seder in Talpiot, in Jerusalem, when I was six. Among the guests were white-bearded old men like Rabbi Binyamin and Professor Klausner, and my father was there too, and others I don’t remember, and there was a big table and much light, and I was in a completely perfect world, and I kept absorbing it and absorbing it. Storing up impressions of a great and beautiful world with myself in it—taking it in, as it were, to sort it all out in adulthood—yet today I know it wasn’t in order to sort it out, but to treasure it that I took it all in.

Last year I celebrated Seder with my men in a big tent near a tel in the Syrian enclave that was being shelled, and that too was a wonderful Seder in its way. . . .

The depression that haunts so much modern Israeli fiction, that throbs, for example, in Yehoshua’s story, is also present in some of Netanyahu’s descriptions of the deaths of his fellow officers and men, and in his own weariness at having for so long to hold the line; unlike in Yehoshua’s story, however, it is never accompanied by sentimentality, or by a mood of moral surrender. Even more than the facts of his life, the record of Netanyahu’s thinking confirms the spirit that sustains Israel as a nation, if not its writers. That spirit, which is vital, noble, generous, and free, Netanyahu ceaselessly reflected upon and sought to instill in others, for many of whom (to judge from the statements appended to this volume by his second-in-command, by the chief of military intelligence, and by Shimon Peres, and from remarks cited throughout by his brothers) he was at once its incarnation and entirely compelling proof of its universal value.


1 Self-Portrait of a Hero: The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu (1963-1976), with notes and an afterword by Benjamin and Iddo Netanyahu, introduction by Herman Wouk, Random House, 304 pp., $12.95.

2 This story was published in COMMENTARY, March 1973.

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).

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